‘If an artist isn’t given freedom, he can’t create art’

Artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari’s 5,000-sq-ft studio in Dahisar is telling of the artist’s life. Some parts of the studio’s walls aren’t painted, the flooring is incomplete and the furniture is mainly plastic. “I had to stop work here for the lack of funds and to focus on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB),” says Krishnamachari.

The artist, who is best known for being co-founder of the KMB, gave up his personal art practice, closed his Mumbai-based gallery and almost went bankrupt to realise his dream project. “At one point, I was the highest tax payer in Dahisar and now I really have nothing,” says Krishnamachari.

The relentless perseverance shown by Krishnamachari and co-founder Riyas Komu, though, has paid off. The first KMB edition in 2012 was visited by four lakh visitors. The second edition in 2014 attracted over five lakh visitors and this year’s edition that draws to a close on March 29 is expected to cross the 10-lakh mark. KMB’s success has also helped Krishnamachari bag another prestigious curatorial assignment, this time in China.

Working overseas

It was in November 2015, while sharing his experiences of putting together the home-grown biennale at an international art conference, that Krishnamachari was invited to curate the first biennale to be held in Yinchuan, a city in the north-western region of China. The event displayed works of 73 artists, including heavyweights such as India’s Sudarshan Shetty, Japan’s Yoko Ono and the U.K.’s Anish Kapoor from September 12 to December 18 last year.

While Krishnamachari is quick to credit it all to destiny, it’s also his goodwill in the art world, his ability to turn around challenging projects and a strong network that allowed him to organise the event in a record eight months. “I don’t think any other biennale was hosted in such a short notice,” he says.

The Yinchuan Biennale was not without its share of controversy. Both Anish Kapoor and Ai Wei Wei had accepted Krishnamachari’s invitation to display their works. A few days before the event though, a furious Kapoor refused to participate.

“I was shocked,” says Krishnamachari. “The host, the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art, had spent a lot to get Kapoor’s work.” Kapoor was responding to Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s work being removed from the biennale owing to political pressure. “[Although] I was constantly in touch with Ai Wei Wei’s studio, [I] wasn’t aware of this development,” Krishnamachari says.

Naturally, the incident rattled the curator. “I was upset too. If an artist isn’t given freedom, he can’t create art.” Krishnamachari, though, needed to convince Kapoor otherwise. “I urged him to think about the efforts the museum was putting in promoting contemporary art in a region where nobody knew what it was.” Eventually, a compromise was met with Kapoor installing his work, but staying away from the opening ceremony.

In the beginning

It was while studying at the Sir J.J. School of Arts, or more specifically in its canteen, that Krishnamachari learned how to build a network. He had come to Mumbai in 1985 from Kerala and wasn’t fluent in English at all. Krishnamachari was accepted at the art school on his second attempt. And so he came to spend most of his time in the art school’s canteen in the centre of the fine arts, applied arts and architecture departments’ buildings. “It was at the canteen that I learnt more than in classrooms,” he recalls. The highest scorer in the school’s 100-year-old history, Krishnamachari would quickly complete given assignments to sit and chill in the canteen. “My father was a carpenter and I think art is in my genes.”

It was while studying at J.J. that Krishnamachari became friends with artists Atul Dodiya and Laxman Shrestha, architects Kapil Gupta, Nuru Karim, and poet and cultural theorist Ranjeet Hoskote. “It was all an important part of learning for me. You can create a network only when you are interested in knowing about others and yourself. Knowledge is not information. You can’t get that from books, but has to be experienced.”

Krishnamachari ensured that he made the most of his art school days. At noon, after college, he made customers’ sketches at Mela restaurant, in Worli until midnight. “I primarily did that job to survive in Mumbai. That job taught me a lot. [It was] while interacting with so many arrogant, polite and beautiful people every day that I learnt a lot about human behaviour and to speak in English.”

Working a community

Krishnamachari’s willingness to share knowledge and contacts with others has helped expand his own network. “Many artists are reluctant in sharing their gallerists’ or collectors’ numbers. I am not. That is how I have given and gained access,” he says. “It’s important to share. What else are you making art for?”

It also helped that Krishnamachari soon became one of the sought-after names in the Indian art world. In 2008, he opened his own art gallery called BMB. In 2009, he was invited to curate the India Pavilion of the prestigious art fair, Arco Madrid.

When Kerala’s former Culture Minister M.A. Baby put out a call for ideas on how to promote culture and tourism in the State, Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu suggested organising an art biennale. Krishnamachari soon started working on realising his and the country’s art fraternity’s biggest dream, a biennale in India. “In India you find great art, heritage, architecture and artists anywhere you go. But we do not have enough infrastructure to show our treasures and talents. I think every State should have museum and art institutes. But we don’t.”

The road to organising a biennale was riddled with difficulties. The first crucial road block the KMB team faced was shortage of funds. The State government that had promised the funds was out of power, and the funds were stalled. Krishnamachari and other artists put in their personal wealth to host the first edition. “There was a time when I paid Rs. 3 crore in taxes. For an artist, that’s a big amount. But now I hardly have anything left,” he says.

That, though, doesn’t bother Krishnamachari as much as the allegations that he and the others from the organising team had pocketed Rs. 5 crore given as funds by the government. “I was shattered. We still kept at it and decided that our work will speak for us.”

Despite not being able to arrange for funds to complete all the 70-plus projects for the first edition, the KMB began work on the second edition. But this time, the art fraternity came to the rescue, to help out cover the losses of Rs 6. 5 crore from the first edition. Artists like Vivan Sundaram, Jitish Kalat, also the curator of the second edition, put their own money into the project. Krishnamachari recalls a young artist from Kerala who sold his wife’s mangalsutra, and many students, professors and local businessmen who contributed as much as possible for the second edition.

Today, in its third edition, the not-for-profit must-attend event for every art lover is stable. “The Kerala government has promised us Rs. 7 crore and many corporates have come forward to help, but it would be nice to seek more help,” says Krishnamachari. It’s the lack of patronage in art, he says, that is the sole reason why many artists are not making it big. “Our artists like Subodh Gupta and Sudarshan Shetty are first recognised outside the country and then valued here. This must change.”

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Printable version | Oct 30, 2020 5:17:21 PM |

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